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Fantasy football Week 4: 10 most intriguing players to watch

Julio Jones against the Houston pass rushers? Michael Vick in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger? These are just two of the most intriguing fantasy football matchups that we can't wait to watch this weekend.

People magazine runs an annual feature on the 25 most intriguing people of the year. Barbara Walters hosts an annual special on the 10 most fascinating people of the year. Borrowing People’s adjective and Babs’ number, we offer you the 10 most intriguing fantasy football performers of the week. This is a subjective list, of course. It might not include some of the players most intriguing to you personally. But for one reason or another, a great many fantasy owners are anxious to see how these players fare in their upcoming games.

Julio Jones vs. Houston

At this rate, Julio’s 2015 reception total will eventually surpass the number of Waffle House franchises in the Atlanta metropolitan area. (But unlike Waffle House hash browns, Julio can’t be covered or smothered.) Jones has 34 catches, the highest three-game total to open a season in NFL history, and 440 receiving yards, putting him on pace for 2,347 (which would break Calvin Johnson’s single-season yardage record of 1,964 from 2012).

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Matt Ryan targeted Jones 20 times against the Cowboys on Sunday, and Julio finished with 12 catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons host the Texans this week, and Houston has a good pair of veteran cornerbacks in Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. But Joseph and Jackson are both under six feet tall and will have a hard time matching up physically with the 6'3" Jones. At this point, Houston’s best chance of slowing down Julio is having J.J. Watt and the rest of the Texans’ pass rushers put Ryan under duress.

Carson Palmer vs. St. Louis

There is no finer place in America to grow old than Arizona, with its warm, dry weather and ample golf courses. The Grand Canyon State is especially hospitable to aging quarterbacks. Kurt Warner thrived in Arizona during the twilight years of his career, and now 35-year-old Carson Palmer is aging ever so gracefully as a member of the Cardinals, playing what might be the best football of his 13-year career. He’s averaging an insane 9.13 yards per passing attempt and has thrown for 803 yards and nine touchdowns.

Perhaps the only concern with Palmer is that he’s only slightly more mobile than Michelangelo’s statue of David. Palmer is willing to stand patiently in the pocket and wait for his receivers to come open, sometimes at his own peril. Fortunately, the Cardinals’ offensive line has done a fine job of protecting the venerable quarterback to this point, allowing just one sack. This week the Cardinals host the Rams, who’ve given up only two touchdown passes and can bring a fierce pass rush. Holding onto the ball too long with Rams defensive linemen Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn lurking is as foolish as poking a desert rattlesnake with a stick.

Ryan Mathews at Washington

Is there a running back controversy percolating in Philadelphia? The Eagles had a woeful 70 rushing yards in their first two games, and DeMarco Murray, who was signed to a five-year, $40 million in the offseason, had 21 carries for 11 yards. Murray was a Week 3 scratch due to a hamstring injury, so Mathews got the start and ran 25 times for 108 yards against a good Jets defense in a 24–17 Eagles victory.

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We’re already hearing talk that Mathews is a better fit for Chip Kelly’s offense, and that Murray, the reigning NFL rushing king, should be relegated to a complementary role. But in Murray’s defense, the Eagles’ offensive line played far better against the Jets than it had in the losses to the Falcons and Cowboys. It seems a little too early to cast aspersions on Murray—even for Philadelphia sports fans, who have booed Mike Schmidt, Allen Iverson and Santa Claus. If Murray returns to action this week, it will be fascinating to see how he and Mathews share carries against a very good Washington run defense that’s giving up 75.0 rushing yards per game and has allowed only one touchdown run.

Brandon Marshall at Her Majesty’s Realm

Oy! Wot the bloody ’ell was you thinkin’ with that lat’ral attempt, Brandon? I haven’t seen a howler like that since the last Newcastle United match! Some bloomin’ rubbish, that. No more dodgy business, eh mate? Sorry ... just trying to get in the mood for some English football. Well, not English football per se, but American football in England. This isn’t just some Jaguars game either. It’s Jets vs. Dolphins, longtime divisional rivals who get on with each other about as well as those squabbling Gallagher brothers from Oasis. Best of all, it’s a morning kickoff! I recommend watching the game while enjoying a full English breakfast. And don’t leave out the black pudding, which tastes better than it looks and works wonders on a hangover.

Oh ... back to Marshall. Yes, his boneheaded move proved costly in a 24–17 loss to the Eagles. Jets fans might still be stewing over it, but Marshall’s fantasy owners can no doubt find it in their hearts to forgive a guy who’s scored three touchdowns and is averaging better than 90 yards a game.

Michael Vick vs. Baltimore

Suppose you were the betting type and were offered 2-to-1 odds on how Michael Vick will fare in place of the injured Ben Roethlisberger, who sprained his MCL on Sunday and is expected to be out 4-6 weeks. Let’s say the three choices were “great,” “acceptable” and “awful.” Where would you put your money? I have no idea how to handicap this one.

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Vick remains physically gifted even at 35, with fleet feet and a live arm. He’ll also have WR Antonio Brown and RB Le’Veon Bell at his disposal, with suspended WR Martavis Bryant due back next week. But it’s fair to wonder how comfortable Vick is with Todd Haley’s offense, having only been with the Steelers for five weeks. Vick has also been a turnover waiting to happen for years now. Adding further intrigue to the unveiling of Vick 3.0 is the fact that it will happen in a nationally televised Thursday-night game against the Steelers’ archrivals, the Ravens. Place your bets.


Karlos Williams vs. N.Y. Giants

A lot of fantasy owners were wary of LeSean McCoy heading into this season after something of a down year in Philadelphia and a move to a seemingly much worse offense in Buffalo. The Bills actually rank second in offensive yardage after three games, but McCoy is averaging 3.4 yards per carry and dealing with a hamstring injury that’s likely to sideline him for this week’s game against the Giants.

McCoy’s injury puts the spotlight on Williams, an impressive-looking rookie from Florida State who was somehow available in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Surprisingly nimble for a bigger back, the 6'1", 230-pound Williams is averaging 7.8 (!) yards per carry on 24 attempts and has run for a touchdown in each of his first three games. It’s going to be fun to see what he can do with extra touches against a Giants defense that’s been surprisingly stingy against the run so far, allowing 74.7 rushing yards per game.

Colin Kaepernick vs. Green Bay

Kaepernick was so bad in a 47–7 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday that 49ers coach Jim Tomsula began the Q&A portion of his postgame press conference by fielding a series of questions about Kap’s job security. Kaepernick staked Arizona to an early 14–0 lead by throwing two interceptions that were returned for easy touchdowns. He wound up completing 9-of-19 passes for 67 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions. In fairness to Kaepernick, he had a pretty decent passing day in a Week 2 43–18 loss to Pittsburgh, completing 71.7% of his throws for 335 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s given his fantasy owners the rushing numbers they expected, running for at least 41 yards in each of his starts this season, with one touchdown.

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Kaepernick owners might wince at the idea of starting the embattled quarterback this week, but Kap will be facing the Packers, whom he’s tortured all three times he’s faced them in his career. He’s 3–0 against Green Bay, 2–0 in playoff games. In those three starts he’s averaged 300.7 passing yards and 100.3 rushing yards, with six total touchdown passes and two touchdown runs. If you think Kaepernick stinks, don’t bother telling Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

Amari Cooper at Chicago

The rookie wide receiver class of 2014 may eventually go down as the finest in NFL history. This year’s rookie receiver crop isn’t quite as bountiful, but Cooper is a jewel. Drafted fourth overall, Cooper has been splendid thus far, with 20 receptions for 290 yards and one touchdown. The rookie from Alabama has been positively electric with the ball in his hands, with well over half of his receiving yardage coming after the catch. On Sunday, Cooper will face the Bears, who have allowed eight touchdown passes and are making opposing quarterbacks look Joe Montana-like with a league-worst 123.8 passer rating against.

Keenan Allen vs. Cleveland

Allen is a streaky son of a gun, isn’t he? He blasted out of the gates in Week 1 with 15 catches for 166 yards against Detroit, had only two catches for 16 yards against Cincinnati the following week, then had 12 catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota.

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We’ve seen this sort of thing before. Allen did little in the first few games of his rookie season in 2013, then kicked it into gear and finished with 71 catches for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. With high expectations in 2014, Allen produced 109 yards and zero touchdowns over his first three games. He erupted for 10 receptions and 135 yards in Week 4, then had fewer than 30 receiving yards in each of his next two games. He got hot in late November, amassing 17-225-3 over a two game-stretch, then had 21 yards and zero touchdowns in Weeks 14 and 15—critical weeks for fantasy owners—before his season ended with a broken collarbone. But Allen is hot now, which is all that matters, right? So what could possibly go wrong for Allen’s fantasy owners this weekend when the Browns visit San Diego and put ace CB Joe Haden on our inconsistent friend?

Greg Olsen at Tampa Bay

Knowing that Cam Newton does a lot of things well but isn’t exactly a pinpoint passer, Panthers GM Dave Gettleman selected Devin Funchess in the second round of this year’s draft, providing Newton with a gargantuan pair of receivers: the 6'4", 225-pound Funchess and the 6'5", 245-pound Kelvin Benjamin. Well, Benjamin ripped up his knee in the preseason and Funchess hasn’t been able to earn substantial snaps, so Newton’s top wide receiver has been 5'11", 185-pound Ted Ginn. Funny how things so rarely go according to plan in the NFL, isn’t it?

But the Panthers still have the 6'5", 253-pound Olsen, and Newton has peppered his rangy tight end with 25 targets over the last two weeks. Olsen had six catches for 70 yards in Week 2, then had eight catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. Olsen will be challenged this week by a Buccaneers defense that’s giving up only 4.5 fantasy points per game to opposing tight ends.